Special to Moonshine Ink
The Wild West history of Truckee and its Jibboom Street red-light district is well-known. Were there also bawdy houses on Tahoe’s North Shore?
In 1911, a famous Sacramento businesswoman was chauffeured to Tahoe Vista. In those days such a drive was not easily done. The roads were dirt wagon trails and the trip could take 10 hours or longer given the vehicles at that time, changeable Tahoe weather, and usually atrocious road conditions.
The lady’s arrival at the Tahoe Vista Hotel (about where the Tahoe Vista Recreational Area boat ramp is now) did not go unnoticed, and local tongues wagged regarding her fancy car, her stylish dress, and her big-city ways.
Her visit was short and she apparently accomplished her business, as she was heard to say to her driver, “Sam, we got the lot!” as she climbed back into her automobile.
The Tahoe Investment Company had advertised beachfront lots for sale in the new postal area of Tahoe Vista, previously known as “Pine Grove.” Travelers historically arrived by steamer from Tahoe City or Glenbrook, but now could more easily make the trip by car due to recent road improvements.
Mr. Brooke of that company may not have known that his first buyer was none other than Cherie (or Cherry) de St. Maurice, owner and madame of the scandalous Cherry Club in Sacramento’s tenderloin district. Miss de St. Maurice, known as the “Scarlet Queen of Sacramento,” was assumed to be setting up a new house of ill repute in Tahoe Vista. As the word spread, lot sales for Mr. Brooke dried up.
Sadly, as things developed, Miss de St. Maurice might have wished she had indeed moved to Tahoe sooner.
Instead, she continued in the summer of 1913 as the powerful, rich, and politically influential owner of her popular red-light club. She likely had no idea that one of her trusted girls (known in the parlance of the day as “inmates”), Cleo Sterling, was plotting against her.
Sterling had developed a relationship with a small-time Reno boxing promoter, actor, and singer by the name of Samuel Raber.
Together they hatched a plan to rob Miss de St. Maurice of her substantial jewelry collection and — some say — her little black book.
Mr. Raber enlisted a Reno boxer and petty criminal by the name of Happy Jack Drumgoole to be his sidekick, and they arrived at the L Street brothel on
a hot night in July.
After some delays courtesy of drunken patrons, the three conspirators met in Sterling’s apartment, painted their faces with black cork as a disguise, and made their way to Miss de St. Maurice’s domicile. As she opened her door, they pushed into the room and Drumgoole grabbed her, roughly covering her mouth with his scarred and calloused hands.
As Sterling and Raber tossed her room and threw jewelry and cash in a bag, Miss de St. Maurice managed to gasp her last words; “Take all I’ve got, boys, but don’t kill me, God bless you!”
During his confession, Drumgoole later stated that he had choked her to keep her quiet, while they finished stealing all the valuables in the room and then left. Raber and Drumgoole headed to San Diego to pawn some of the loot and mail the rest to Salt Lake City, where they planned to meet up with Sterling.
They all three later claimed they had no idea that Miss de St. Maurice lay dead on the floor.
Sterling reported to have chanced upon the body but was arrested on suspicion at the scene.
Raber broke down to Sacramento detectives after just a few hours of sweating under the lights and implicated Drumgoole as the murderer and Sterling as the ringleader.
Drumgoole was quickly convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The drama increased when he changed his confession upon learning that Raber might be sentenced to hang, admitting that Raber had not touched Miss de St. Maurice and that he was not forced at gunpoint by Raber into the crime as he had claimed at trial.
Raber’s jury was not sympathetic and found the young singer guilty of first-degree murder, sentencing him to death by hanging at Folsom Prison.
Cleo Sterling’s trial was the talk of the town. One hundred fifty-eight jurors were disqualified, as most men of that time would not agree to sentence a woman to death. The jury of 12 married white men spent just an hour in deliberation before acquitting her.
She told the cheering throng and reporters: “I’m going home to my parents in Europe,” but was arrested the following December in Reno’s red-light district for consorting. She was given a “floater” by the judge, meaning if she left the state, no charge would be filed.
Sam Raber was hanged on January 4, 1915 at Folsom Prison; his last words were, “I am not afraid to meet the finish. It is not courage, but fate.” He was 26.
Happy Jack Drumgoole died of tuberculosis at Folsom in the tenth year of his life sentence.
He was 32.
Miss de St. Maurice’s Tahoe Vista lots were auctioned off along with her Sacramento properties for pennies on the dollar.
As the United States entered into the First World War, cities and towns including Sacramento, Reno, and San Francisco began “clean-up campaigns” to be rid of red-light districts and houses of ill fame.
After the Great Depression of 1929, Tahoe Vista was developed into the quiet beach retreat that Miss St. Maurice might have appreciated in the old age she never had the chance to enjoy.
Sources: This story was compiled from research including Saga of Lake Tahoe, E.B. Scott; San Francisco Call, Aug. 2, 1913; Oakland Tribune Oct.31, 1913; Salt Lake Telegram June 24, 1938; and Oakland Tribune Jan. 15, 1915.